Tag Archives: Before During After

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Cover imageSpoilt for choice this month: two posts for new titles, and now two for paperbacks. I’ll start the first selection with one of my books of 2015. I have to confess that I didn’t get on with Emily Woof’s first novel, The Whole Wide Beauty. It was lauded to the skies by all and sundry but I gave it up. The premise of The Lightning Tree was so appealing, though, that I decided to give her a second try and I’m very glad I did. The bare bones are this: girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, lefty activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. I find this structure a particularly attractive one: lots of lovely space for character development.

A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple also follows a relationship over many years. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s, published back in 2010. His new novel begins in 1993 with two young British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California. They instantly click then both become involved in a dubious moral act which dogs Adam, in particular. The book charts their friendship over nearly twenty years, picking out the tensions between them – Neil’s resentment of Adam’s casual privilege, career ups and downs, marriage and children with their attendant worries. Miller’s novel was an enjoyable piece of holiday reading for me last year which may explain why I remember it so well.

I think Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie would have stayed with me wherever I read it. As with Cover imageEmily Woof, I wasn’t particularly keen on Attenberg’s much praised The Middlesteins but the background to her new novel was so intriguing that it piqued my interest. The eponymous Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone. Mazie is an unforgettable character, and Joseph Mitchell’s story is almost as interesting as hers.

Still in New York but fast forwarding several decades, Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After is an unusual take on the events of September 11th, 2001. As its title suggests, Bausch’s novel is set in the months before, during and after the terrorist attacks, exploring what happened very effectively by drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both. It’s a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging

Cover imageNow to one I haven’t read but am very much looking forward to: Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono. On the same day a retired Parisian police inspector receives a letter from a woman who claims to be his daughter, he finds a stranger waiting for him at his apartment. Professor Tadashi Omura tells Inspector Jovert his extraordinary life story which has surprising parallels with Jovert’s own. It sounds intriguing and comes from Tinder Press who seem to have developed a sharp eye for talent.

That’s it for the first batch of February paperbacks. A click on the title will take you to my review for the first four while The Snow Kimono will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with February’s new novels they’re here and here.

Before, During, After: Acts of terror, both personal and political

Cover imageThe events of September 11th, 2001 have spawned scores of novels, some subtle – Paul Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies ends with the redemption of his main protagonist who walks out into the early morning of that bright, blue-skyed autumn day, full of hope – some not so much. Fourteen years later, it seems that this particular vein of fiction is far from exhausted. Richard Bausch’s new novel, set as its title suggests in the months before, during and after the attacks, explores it most effectively, drawing parallels between the personal and the political. Michael and Natasha are newly in love, soon to be married. On the day of the attacks she’s in Jamaica with a friend, he’s in New York for a wedding. What follows is devastating for them both.

Michael and Natasha meet at a Washington party in April. She has just left her post as a senatorial aide and is recovering from an affair; he has recently resigned from the Episcopal ministry after twenty years. When they find they both hail from Memphis, a strong connection is formed which soon turns to passionate love. Within a few months plans have been made – a return to Memphis for both of them where they will set up house, then marry. In early September, Natasha travels to Jamaica for the holiday her friend Constance arranged for them both many months ago. It is there that she learns about the terrorists’ attack, knowing that Michael is staying close to the Twin Towers. Distraught and unable to contact him, Natasha shrugs off Constance’s reassurance then irritation, walking alone on the beach while her friend drinks herself into a stupor. Unscathed by the attacks, Michael takes the long, strange journey home by train, travelling through a country whose population is both grief-stricken and furious. When they are reunited, Natasha is inexplicably distant and emotionally volatile; Michael is at a loss to understand quite why. What had at first seemed the beginning of a happy, loving life together full of hope becomes poisoned with mistrust – Natasha has been raped but has told no one.

Bausch’s descriptions of the post-9/11 shock, grief and paranoia that seized Americans after the attacks are extraordinarily vivid, both in his depiction of tourists stranded in Jamaica drinking themselves to distraction and of Michael’s train journey in which strangers exchange intimacies and talk of a country changed forever. The aftermath of Natasha’s rape, her guilt, shame and inability to talk to anyone about it ring all too true while Michael’s bewilderment, anguish and the beginnings of his mistrust are poignantly described. Two appalling events have taken place, both very different in scale: the one, dramatic and devastating for so many with such far-reaching effects; the other deeply personal but equally devastating for Michael and Natasha. It’s a brave man who tackles the subject of rape but Bausch succeeds in wrenching our hearts for Natasha for whom everything has changed. This is a profoundly involving novel – quite cerebral at times, but also emotionally engaging. Having made a start with Peace a few years ago, it’s to be hoped that Atlantic will publish Bausch’s extensive backlist here in the UK.